The Torah in Parashat Shemini lists the species of birds which are considered “unclean” – that is, forbidden for consumption. This list includes a bird called the aya (11:14).
The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (63b) comments that this species is the same species that is identified later in the Torah (Devarim 14:13) by the name “ra’a.” The species’ real name, the Gemara establishes, is “aya,” but it received the moniker “ra’a” – which means “sees” – because of its exceptional vision. As an example of this bird’s vision, the Gemara states, “It stands in Babylonia and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel.”
Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin (cited by Rav Matis Blum in his Torah La-da’at) offered a symbolic explanation of this image – the image of a bird situated far from the Land of Israel seeing a carcass lying on the ground in the land. This image, Rav Shapiro suggested, represents the unfortunate phenomenon of people looking to find fault in “Eretz Yisrael” – in matters of sanctity and religious significance. This bird is considered “impure,” Rav Shapiro explained, specifically because when it looks to the Holy Land, it sees the “carcasses” – the flaws and imperfections. There is so much beauty – both physical and spiritual – in Eretz Yisrael, yet the aya, as depicted by Chazal, chooses to see only the “carcass,” the unseemly, odious elements. Rather than appreciate the special qualities of the land, its unique status of sanctity and the outstanding achievements of the people who inhabit it, the aya singles out the fetid “carcass,” the land’s defects and shortcomings. This misdirected focus on the Holy Land’s flaws makes this bird “impure” and unworthy of human consumption.
Looking critically at people and their undertakings, and focusing specifically on their faults and inadequacies, is always discouraged. But there is something particularly detestable about finding fault in “Eretz Yisrael” – in that which is sacred, noble and precious. Certainly, there are “carcasses” even in “the Land of Israel.” Even the most righteous figures have faults and are guilty of failures and indiscretions, and even the noblest of projects are deficient in some way. If we look hard enough, and scrutinize thoroughly enough, we will find what to criticize in virtually anything. In their depiction of the aya, Chazal warn against this tendency, and urge us to appreciate and admire the greatness of great people and great things, notwithstanding their imperfections.
SALT for Wednesday - Chag Sameach
We read in Parashat Shemini of the tragic death of Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, on the day they began serving as kohanim. After a fire descended from the heavens to consume the sacrifices on the altar, signaling the arrival of God’s presence in the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu brought an unauthorized incense offering, and they were immediately consumed by fire. The Torah famously describes Aharon’s surprisingly composed reaction to this personal tragedy, stating succinctly, “Va-yidom Aharon” – “Aharon was silent” (10:3).
A number of works (such as Divrei Shaul and Sheim Mi-Shmuel) cite an obscure and enigmatic Midrashic passage which asks, “What could he have said” – meaning, what could Aharon had said in response to his sons’ death, such that the Torah found it significant that he remained silent and held his tongue? The Midrash answers, puzzlingly, that Aharon could have cited the verse, “On the eighth day [after a boy’s birth], the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Vayikra 12:3). Many writers endeavored to explain this mysterious remark, and uncover the connection between the obligation of berit mila and the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s death.
It appears that the Midrash here draws an association between the eight-day process of the kohanim’s consecration, and the requirement to circumcise an infant on his eighth day of life. The day Aharon and his sons began serving as kohanim was preceded by the seven-day miluim period, during which they were formally consecrated for this role by bringing sacrifices which Moshe offered on their behalf. When Aharon brought his sons to begin serving as kohanim on the eighth day, he resembled – in the eyes of the Midrash – a father bringing his son for a berit mila on his eighth day of life.
Developing this parallel further, it is unnatural for the father of a newborn infant to inflict pain in his son. Parents of a newborn child instinctively shower the child with love, and are naturally driven to care for him and protect him from harm to the very best of their ability. However, the Torah commands parents to circumcise their newborn child as a sign of the child’s “consecration” as a servant of the Almighty. The message, perhaps, is that parents are to educate and train their children to observe God’s laws, which includes having the children make certain sacrifices, and denying them some of what they want. The symbolism of berit mila might be that parents occasionally need to restrain their natural instinct to satisfy their child’s wishes and desires, for the sake of accustoming them to a life of disciplined Torah observance.
Somewhat similarly, Aharon was told to bring his sons to serve as kohanim, a position that – as he learned in the most painful way imaginable – entailed a great deal of responsibility and was fraught with danger. The priesthood is a great privilege, but the delicate nature of the service in the Temple places the kohanim at risk. By comparing the kehuna (priesthood) to berit mila, the Midrash perhaps points to the fact that just as Aharon was called upon to bring his beloved children into the service in the Mikdash despite the challenges and sacrifices entailed, so are all parents called upon to bring their children into the service of God, despite the challenges and sacrifices that are involved.
Of course, the decision of whether to meet these challenges lies entirely with the children themselves. Aharon, as depicted by the Midrash, might have thought to protest his misfortune, claiming that he brought his sons to the kehuna just as a father circumcises his child, and it is thus unjust that tragedy should befall them as a result. But Aharon did not protest, likely because the tragic fate resulted from his sons’ grave failure. Leaving aside the precise nature of Nadav and Avihu’s sin – a topic discussed at length by numerous commentators – they were punished for inappropriately handling their role, failing to adhere to the laws and restrictions that govern the service in the Mishkan. Parents bear the responsibility of bringing their children to the “Mishkan,” to train them, educate them, and prepare them for a life of commitment to God, but ultimately, it is only the children who, when they reach adulthood, decide whether or not to follow the path they have been taught and live in compliance with God’s laws.